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Beyond Folklore: Akawui on Andean Rhythms and Powwow

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One of the highlights of this past summer’s Nuits d’Afrique Festival in Montréal was an electrifying performance by Akawui, a Montréal-based musician with Andean roots. Akawui also won this year’s Syli d’Or competition–both the grand prize and Afropop’s prize for stage presence. You can hear Akawui’s performance in our latest show, “Afropop Live 2015.” In an interview with producer Jesse Brent after the Nuits d’Afrique performance, Akawui told us about returning to his Andean roots (while still incorporating elements as diverse as powwow drumming and dubstep), and his plans for his debut album and the launch of his clothing brand AKA Cruz Andina.

Jesse Brent: Could you start off by introducing yourself?

Akawui: My name is Akawui Riquelme and I’m an author, composer, and a musician from Montreal, Québec. Origins from Chile–my parents are Chileans.

How long has your group been together and can you tell me about how it started?

This new formation started a year and a half ago. I went to Brazil last Brazilian summer–winter for here–and when I came back, I already had in mind that I wanted to change my musical direction, because before I was doing a lot of Brazilian music–Afro-Brazilian, to be more specific. And I wanted to be more authentic to my roots. My manager, who was my friend but not my manager at the time, said, “I see great potential in you.” Lea Boicel is her name. I was looking for that sound, my sound, my authenticity–who am I, really? Because people were starting to think that I was Brazilian. And it’s really interesting, because all my life I played Andean pan pipes. I know most of the South American, Andean folkloric rhythms, and I never showed them, because it was really personal. So after a big talk with her, she was like, “Look, if you want to do this, you need to really go, and right now, I see that you’re not pushing it. You’re not pushing your creativity.”

And I was feeling it also. It was kind of getting boring to do music, because it was only party music, which there’s nothing wrong with. I made people dance today, but if you’re only going to make music to jump, put your hand in the air, and drink alcohol and get with the ladies, it gets pretty empty after four years. Nothing that I regret, but now I mix it. I’m having fun. With my lyrics and with my instruments, I can blend the whole thing.

The best example I can give is yesterday I was playing at the Aboriginal Pavilion showcase in Toronto for the Pan Am games, and I met this throat singer who does beatboxing, Nelson Tagoona. And right off the bat, Alejandro Ronceria, who was the artistic director, said, “I think you guys need to meet.” And when he started beatboxing, I said, “Man, can you do some dubstep?” And right there on the stage, with no practice, I featured him, and it was beautiful what came out of that–beatboxing, kind of like dubstep, with the Andean flute and hip-hop. It was amazing. My grandma–she passed away, but she was a Mapuche native, so I was always interconnected with all the aboriginal cultures from her also.

That’s really cool. You should do some more collaboration with that.

Oh, it’s coming. We exchanged contacts, like, “Man, you’re going to be in the song.” Because it’s a demo right now and we can still change it. Not only one song, but I’m going to make a lot of collaborations with that guy, for sure.

Can you tell me about these traditions that you’re getting back to, from your own roots, and growing up with that, and what it means to you?

As I said before, I didn’t want to get too deep into it, because it was private. And something also happened. Andean music started really nice. It started really quality. And after a while, it was more like begging for money, because the type of musician really went down. And people started affiliating Andean music from the street with almost begging for money. But my father, his band was really research–they had music teachers that were playing charango and Andean rhythms. I wasn’t ashamed or shy. It was more like keeping it for myself. My name is Nelson Akawui, but nobody ever called me Nelson. My close friends and my family call me Akawui. Even with this new project, it was like, “Akawui is me.” I’m going to show really what I’m about and it was a big step, almost like coming out of the closet, I say sometimes.

It wasn’t easy to write songs. I found it was a whole procedure–a new route for me, to actually speak your mind, and really show what you have inside. Because usually, in day to day, we’re never really honest, a hundred percent. Where are the people that are really honest, even to say, “How was your show?” “Oh, great great great.” But really be honest. People only go to the first degree of honesty. So for me, it was “go really honest, and really do what you want to do.” It’s almost like “get naked and go.” So that’s what happened with the music.

I don’t want to do folklorical music. Folklorical music–I love it. This is what I grew up with. It makes my hair shiver, but I’m an urban guy. I was born and raised in the city. I think there’s so many things that I can complement with the music, like hip-hop and dubstep, throat singing with a flute. I like to read, and I like to go into consciousness or philosophy and psychology. I remember saying to a producer when we started working with on some song, and he didn’t know in what direction I wanted to go, “Man, imagine if Atlantis existed, what type of music would they hear? If Atlantis was old, but they were more advanced than us…” My tracks–I want them to say, “This is so new”–like dubstep, but it’s old at the same time. So this is the bridge, the cross point, where the flute and pan pipes–the melodies that have the flavor of the Andes, but all of a sudden, you hear a dubstep, a hip-hop, a dancehall. Maybe this was what Atlantis people were listening to. So that’s the whole evolution of the sound that I’m going for.

I think that a lot of the music that’s the most interesting that’s happening now is mixing really authentic culture with new sounds, like electronic production and hip-hop. And I agree with you that there is the danger of something becoming too folkloric, where it’s just like going to the museum. But to see it be really alive and changing…

Exactly. Museums live in the past. You need to live in the present and the future, because the market changes so fast. Everybody’s creative, and there’s so much potential in big cities like New York, L.A., and in Brazil and Africa. They’re always inventing, creating new rhythms, new instruments. So you need to be on, like “what’s going on now?” I don’t want to do a folklorical band now. It’s what I grew up with. I think I can come with–not something better–something different. Every type of music has its place. If you’re going to the Andes, I don’t want pop. I want folklorical music. I came here for this, because this is what’s going to nurture me. But if I go to a club, I don’t want to hear folklorical music. I want to hear something electronic or with a lot of rhythm and bass. That’s the type of music that I want to do for now. And, of course, I’m going to do a traditional song in one of the shows. That’s for sure. That’s coming.

Are you going back to the Andes pretty often, or when was the last time you were there?

The last time that I went to Chile was in 2010. Now, I’m planning on going in this coming six months. I need to go. We’re planning to go film two video clips of two songs. I need to go back soon to get to know even more about the culture. I know a little bit. I know what I grew up with and what my father taught me. Andean music came from the musicians. The musicians bring the culture and the knowledge. In my song, “Cruz Andina,” I sing, “Ama quella. Ama sua. Ama llulla.” When I was 13, my father was a busker musician in the street–he still is. We played with a guy who played Andean harp. The guy was Kichwa. He spoke Spanish well, but he made some mistakes with his vocabulary. I started taking some Kichwa lessons with him, and he taught me what “Ama quella. Ama sua. Ama llulla” meant [Don’t be lazy. Don’t steal. Don’t lie]. The musicians bring with them the culture, and so that’s how I got to learn all the traditions and the songs.

That was awesome having your dad on stage with you. His dancing was really great.

Yeah, we have a lot of the same energy. He was always a visionary, since he came to Canada. He escaped the country for political reasons–the Golpe de Estado [coup d’état] in ‘75. He arrived in Montreal in ‘78. That’s him whistling right now, actually. He has this crazy energy. He has Shango energy. He’s always extremely creative. He composed a lot of songs, and so many of the songs are great. And he only began in the music industry when he was 30 years old. Before that, he never even thought about doing music, and he created really nice songs.

It was cool to see both of you together on stage. How did you get into Brazilian music? Was that through a musician who’s in your band now?

No, I was always into martial arts, since a kid. My two passions were always martial arts and music. I did boxing and everything, but at 15, I did capoeira, and it’s through capoeira. My master in capoeira saw that I had the facility of music to pick up instruments, to pick up rhythms, percussion, and he taught me a lot of percussion, because I was interested. And that’s when I started speaking Portuguese at 15, and learning all the traditions, through capoeira. Once again, the music brings you to the cultural history. If you want to learn about Brazil, do capoeira. You’re going to learn all about it. The slaves brought it from Africa. Even the wars, the kings from Portugal who came. They’re going to tell you all about that.

And after that–I did four years of capoeira–I wanted to learn MMA, and I had a professional career of mixed martial arts for four years. I broke my ligament at 23 years old, and music pulled me back. I didn’t want to do music because I didn’t want to fall into the musician cliché of life–being irresponsible, a womanizer, an alcoholic. The martial art life is really strict. It gives you discipline and that’s what I liked. Growing up with a musician, I didn’t want that aspect. But sometimes the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. And I wanted to be creative. I needed to live that life of music and the stage, and feel comfortable on the stage. Since I was three, I’ve been performing with my dad in subways and festivals. That’s how it all started. And then, from 24 to 28, I played Brazilian music. And at 29, on a new path.

Can you tell me about the other members of your band? They’re from all over the world, right?

Exactly. It’s something that I really want to make outstanding to the audience. When people say “one love” and “union,” then you really need to walk the talk. So I really believe, in the sense of, we’re all one, and what’s more beautiful than making music with a lot of influences? And that creates a unity on stage. In big cities like Montreal and New York– cosmopolitan cities–you can have friends from Africa, Arab countries, South America, Asia, Australia, Canada. Cuban brass players are really good, so I have my friend Yordan Martinez, who’s a good brass player, and he’s our musical director. Percussionists–I’m working with Bruno Martinez from Mexico, who also excels really well in African percussion. Also Elli Miller Maboungou, who’s injured. He’s half-Congolese half-American. He’s a son of Zab Maboungou, who started the first African dance company in Canada. This woman is a genius and she’s a master of technique, and her son is Elli. We went to elementary school together, and he’s part of the band also.

I have Parker Mah on the keyboard, who has Asian origins, from BC. He lived in Africa. The guy speaks Spanish. He went to Colombia. He’s an Asian guy who speaks Spanish, who speaks Wolof, who speaks Japanese. And Sarah-Judith Hinse-Paré, who’s half-African, from Burkina Faso and Québec, at the violin. She has a swag on stage and in the way she plays, in the way she dances. You can see that. It’s such a plus. Jean-Daniel Thibeault-Desbiens on the drums. This guy went to Cuba, if I’m not wrong, for a year to study Afro-Cuban rhythms and he’s a great drummer. Plus, he understands pop. There’s Émil Farley, who’s great at jazz. We did a few gigs together. There’s Ivan Ossandon, who’s Chilean. Ivan played with my dad when I was four. And now he’s playing with me. I said, “I want to play together.” He plays charango, cuatro, guitar, and he knows all about the Andean rhythms. That’s the band. It’s multiethnic.

And there’s the Redtail Spirit Singers from Kahnawake, drumming. Even if you’re not First Nation, when the powwow drums start, you’re going to feel that thing inside of you. And the beautiful thing is they integrated me in their group, and I go to powwow now. They kind of adopted me. I drum with them now. And I get to learn all about the powwow ceremonies and powwow festivities. Once again, through music, you get to learn all of the culture, all of the mentality. They talk to each other. They respect each other. I’m getting my first step into the powwow scene, and it’s a place of gathering with people and “one love.” Really, you feel the “one love” in powwow, because there is no alcohol; there is no drugs, and everybody has a sense of unity. Even if you’re not Mohawk, you can be Ojibwe; you can be from the north; you can be from Chile, whatever. It’s beautiful how people just dance, sing, no alcohol, no fight, just a peaceful vibe, and enjoy the time.

It’s a great band. It’s amazing how people from so many different cultures come together. And it really sounds tight. With so many different backgrounds, you could imagine it being a mess, but it really works.

Yeah, I had that idea in mind for a long time. I’m a fighter. I always fought. I fought professionally. I trained under BTT–Brazilian Top Team. I trained with GSP [Georges St-Pierre] at a certain time. And my manager was like, “You’re a fighter, man. Bring the fighter out of you in the music.” In powwow drumming, you hear the beat–it’s the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Tinku is the same thing. Tinku is a rhythm and it has the same tempo. Tinku has an accent on the first one-time. I called Jesse Achneepineskum, who’s a member of Redtail Spirit Singers, and I sent him one of my songs, and I was like, “Look, would you like to integrate powwow into the song?” And he made it happen. From an idea, you make things happen. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful.

You haven’t recorded an album yet, have you? Are you working on one now?

I haven’t recorded an album yet. I’m recording an EP slowly, slowly. At first, I was really in a rush, because people were like, “Where’s your album? Where’s your album?” But it’s a good thing that I didn’t record an album with the Brazilian band, because I don’t do Brazilian music anymore. It taught me a lesson. I’m not in a rush to record an album. Because now with all these prizes, people are like, “You’re one of the rare artists to win RFI Talent with no album. You get to participate in big festivals with no album.” I even did the Jazz Fest with no album. Through a TV contest, I won the prize to play at the Jazz Festival in Montreal. I’m working on it, but I want to do things right, so that the sound is going to be massive and well produced, with a lot of research in it. If everything goes well–I don’t want to say date–but EP before spring 2016.

Are you producing it yourself or do you have someone else who’s going to produce it for you?

I’m producing it myself, but RFI is giving me a grant, helping me with the money. That was part of the prize. Musically, I’m working with my artist director, music director Yordan Martinez, who does the arrangements. But money-wise, I have hours of studio that I can use, and I pay the musicians, and we make it old school. I have access to great studios to record for a really really low cost.

Are you going to be touring more around the country or the world?

Hopefully. I hope that the music will bring me as far as possible. Right now, as the season is ending for festivals, there’s no more booking, but now it’s time to work on the album and also work on my brand. I have a clothing brand, AKA Cruz Andina. I’m making hip-hop hats with Andean tissues, with Guatemalan tissues, like you can see on my head. And T-shirts, hoodies. I wear it with proudness–all those textiles and patterns that you find in all the Americas, from First Nations people. The Andean cross–it’s also known as chakana or Cruz Andina. You find it in all the First Nations, from the Americas. Even in New Zealand, it’s there. It’s super mystical. It’s like 5,000 years old. It’s in the Andes. It’s in the mountains, in big stones. Nobody really knows who did them. People say, “Oh it’s this tribe.” And the beautiful thing is it’s in cultures of First Nations all across the Americas. They have it as a symbol that unifies. So what better symbol to actually feel the power of union?

And the whole process of me making this new music–it was like “become true to yourself.” A lot of Latinos have a tendency to lose the authenticity of the First Nation, but if you look at the Peruvian face, Ecuadorian face, Colombian, Mexican, Salvadoran, and if you ask them, “Are you First Nation?” They’ll tell you, “No, I’m Salvadorian.” It’s like, “Buddy, really look at your face. Look at yourself in the mirror, and you go to powwow. You pass incognito, man. Nobody’s going to be like, ‘Who is this guy?’ You’re a First Nation.” In Chile, unfortunately, Mapuche people, like my dad, live that. People felt ashamed to say, “Yeah, my grandma’s First Nation from Temuco. What’s up?” There’s no difference between Latino and First Nation. If you’re Latino, you have probably 70 percent First Nation blood in you. You’re more than a half First Nation, but you call yourself Colombian, Peruvian, Chilean, Mexican, Guatemalan.

To be honest, let’s be real here, if you’re not First Nation–if you’re Asian or German, you’re going to wear it because it’s nice. And if you’re Colombian, you’re going to wear it because you’ll say, “Yeah, this is cool. It comes from my country, but I’m pimping it. It’s fashion.” Once again, it’s not folklorical. There’s nothing wrong with putting on folklorical stuff. But you need to assume that folklorical authenticity, and not everybody can–like putting on a poncho. You’re not going to put on a poncho instead of a coat. People are going to want to wear a Canada Goose, instead of a poncho. But what if you wear a Canada Goose with some nice textile of Guatemalan tissue? Then you pimp it out. That’s even more cool than just Canada Goose.

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Is it out now? Can you buy this stuff online?

It’s out now, but I’m only selling it to friends, to people that I know in shows. Now, the T-shirts are on sale at the festival. And I’m making the official launch this fall. I brought textile from Guatemala. I have textile from Peru. My mother’s bringing textile from Chile. I’m working with this couturier, and we’re going to make it nice and big. I already have contacts with the First Nation circuit in Canada to put it together and promote that, which is beautiful. It’s coming along well, and people enjoy it. It’s going to be affordable–$40 a hat, maybe $45 max. People put on L.A., New York Yankees hats–nothing against the New York Yankees–but I’ve never been to New York and I do not follow baseball, so why in hell would I put on a baseball hat? Just for the look–that’s why rappers have them on in videos. Well, what if a rapper puts on this hat, and kids from Guatemala are like, “Mommy, I want that hat, because actually this comes from my country.” Then there’s a movement back to the roots, back to the source.

Is that the hat you’re wearing now?

Yeah, it’s the hat I’m wearing now. I did a new batch of hats. The people that I’ve admired in an artistic direction are Carlinhos Brown, Rubén Blades, Damien Marley, Calle 13, Residente. They’re all artists that bring something more to the table than just living an egocentric dream. By being me and expressing myself on stage is my dream, I’m not really making  a change. I’m probably bringing joy to the spectators over there, but other than that, maybe you shed a tear, maybe they’re going to meet a girl. You might dance and meet the woman of your life, according to one of my songs. Beautiful. But I think we could do more.

I wasn’t a problem kid, but I had tendencies to be a problem kid. And capoeira helped me. And my capoeira master helped me, because I couldn’t afford to pay $115 a month. Those were the fees. And when I was a kid, my mother couldn’t afford to pay for a piano teacher. She was a single mother–couldn’t afford to pay for a piano teacher, and I couldn’t play piano. It’s not a big deal. I’m making it right now in music. But what if 15 percent of my brand–I want it to go to a foundation and help a kid in the Americas, especially in the First Nations, because I’m taking from First Nation tissue, from the origin. I want to help a kid to–let’s say if a kid in Costa Rica–we know he’s really good in piano or he’s a dancer or he’s a fighter, and he wants to join in a class, but his mother doesn’t have 200 pesos to put him in a boxing school or to buy mitts. Well, I want my foundation, through my brand, to pay a scholarship for one year of jiu jitsu. There you go. “Become a purple belt, man. And make a change in your community. Then start teaching for kids.”

People say they want to change the world, but it’s not going to be free. Neither capitalism nor communism. Neither is really good. You see the capitalist system doesn’t work. The communist system doesn’t work either. I think that if I pay an instructor of martial arts, and I send them four kids in Bolivia, everybody’s going to be happy. I don’t want it to just be free, because people need to eat. That’s the mentality that I have about making a change. You know who really inspired me is this boxer Ghislain “Mani” Maduma. He’s a champion. The guy got a championship belt. And he went to Africa, to Congo, because he’s originally from Congo, and he saw a few young adults, and they couldn’t finish their year in university because they didn’t have enough money to finish their masters or bacc. It was 300 dollars that these kids needed. He said, “Three hundred bucks, are you serious?” He said, “Akawui, I’ve been at nightclubs after my fights in Montreal, where people spend 2,000 dollars on a bottle, two bottles of champagne, just balling out and making it rain. And these guys can’t even finish their university, and through that, maybe make a real change.” So my band played for free with a comedian, Eddy King, and Rachid Badouri, a comedian from Québec, Kinsha, another artist, and Young Paris. He packed Club Balattou with a hundred, 200 people. Twenty bucks a head. He brought 3,000 dollars to Congo, paid these guys’ fees. I thought, That is brilliant. There you go. Go finish your studies, man. At the end of the road, you have your trophy. Who gives a hell, man? Good for you, but do something better.

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That’s really beautiful. Creating a new, positive cycle. I really respect that. You’ve got to come to New York. You’ve never been there?

I know, my manager Lea said, “We’ve got to head down to New York.” I know the music is really high level over there. And this is actually something good, because there’s no time to feel comfortable. In the gym, in martial arts, you’re good at your gym. You knock everyone out at your gym, but there’s a thousand gyms out there in the world. And if you really want to make it, you’ve got to make sure that you can do 12 rounds with the best guys at each gym, and once you can do that, you can actually tap yourself on the shoulder. The music in New York is really creative, so I might be doing something great here. But what do I bring new to New York? When I see it, I’m going to be like, “Wow, these guys are really hustling, really perfecting.”

I want to go and learn from them. And once you train with the best, you become one of the best. Once you go to New York, and you start jamming with these guys, something great is going to come, because the great salsa guys are in New York. The great jazz players are in New York. Hip-hop is in New York. So you want to do a great hip-hop song? People in New York need to dig it. If New York approves your song, then the world’s going to approve your song. I applied to Mundial Montreal. And there’s Mundial Montreal in New York. Hopefully I can go. But, I have musicians that are actually following me. And if I’m like, “Let’s go to New York,” they will follow. They’re tight. We have a friendship. And if we can go to New York, I’m totally down to go and meet people and open the horizons, in all the aspects, networking, getting to know a different city.

Mundial Montreal is great. I went to their showcase in New York last year.

I applied to APAP, globalFest. I think those are the places that you need to go also. Because it’s easy to fall in the same pattern here in Montreal, and it’s a hard business. It’s a hard industry. Especially for us, since we’re singing in a different language. 80 percent of my stuff is in Spanish, so it’s hard to actually get to the people, because it’s not what’s playing on the radio. That’s why I want to go to South America also, and sing some English. If Shakira made it in English, I can make it in English.

Do you have anything else to add?

No, just thanks so much to Afropop. I was actually surprised, because I didn’t know that I won the prize at the gala. I hear my song in the widescreen, in a video of me. Everyone was like, “You won.” And I’m like, “What did I win?” “Afropop.” “When?” “You just won.” It said “Afropop winner.” And the funny thing is two years ago, I saw the Afropop winner at Syli d’Or, at this competition, and she didn’t win the first prize. So when I saw they gave me the Afropop prize, I’m like, “Oh, shoot. They’re not going to give me the first prize. They’re going to give me Afropop only.” But then it turned out well. I won first prize and Afropop. And when they told me it was for the performance, I was actually pleased. I was like, “O.K., they saw something good on stage.” If Afropop liked it, there’s something I’m doing well, and really thank you very much, guys.

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